You’ve got to be tough to be a professional wrestler. There’s really no way around it. Every night, pro wrestlers go out there and endure terrible physical abuse. We’re not even talking about death matches and hell in a cell falls here. Even a simple bodyslam or leg drop can lead to a career ending injury at worst and some serious morning pains at best. A few matches is all it takes for most people to know if they have a chance of turning professional wrestling into a career. There are no modern WWE wrestlers who don’t have to endure that pain.
That being said, there are few stars in the business today who can claim to be nearly as tough as some of the biggest wrestlers of the ‘80s. It’s a cultural thing. Back then, wrestling promoters typically looked for the roughest, toughest, meanest men and women they could find. These were people who endured a world of pain before they ever even stepped into a ring. They were bar fighting, nose breaking, hard living examples of how tough a person can get when they live without fear. Modern wrestlers may be tough, but these are the top 15 ‘80s wrestlers that are tougher than modern stars.
15 The Iron Sheik
It’s a bit of a shame that the Iron Sheik’s career has been boiled down to some radio sound bytes and a few “Did you know?” factoids on the WWE website because there was a time when Sheik was one of wrestling’s greatest heels. Sure, he played up the foreign bad guy stereotype en route to stardom, but that doesn’t mean that Sheik didn’t cause crowds everywhere to launch into near riots. Of course, if those crowds did decide to riot, they would have a tough time actually bringing Sheik down.
Sheik’s history as an olympic wrestler proves that he was strong in his time, but it’s the stories of how Sheik refused to back down from traditional tough guys and would antagonize entire audiences to the point of violence which really make you realize he’s a historically significant tough guy.
14 Paul Orndorff
If younger fans know Paul Orndorff at all, they probably know him as the guy that participated in those awful WCW segments involving the hotline psychic which have become a YouTube favorite. Long before Orndorff became a meme, however, he established himself as a tough young football player at a time when tough football players were some of the toughest men on the planet. Orndorff didn’t abandon his toughness when he became a wrestler, but he also didn’t try to make a career out of legitimately uppercutting people in the jaw like he did in football.
However, there are stories like the one involving Orndorff taking Vader to school in the WCW locker room while wearing flip-flops that have helped Orndorff establish his reputation as one of those old-school wrestlers you wouldn’t want to mess with.
13 Arn Anderson
If you were itching to get into a fight and saw Arn Anderson on the other side of the bar, would you dare to mess with him? If you’re someone who values your life and possesses an ounce of common sense, you likely would not. The funny there is that there aren’t actually a lot of stories in pro wrestling folklore involving Arn Anderson beating a lot of people up or committing traditional tough guy acts. Instead, Arn’s toughness stems from the general aura he projects, his reputation as a leader of men who all looked like they’d be on death row if they weren’t in the wrestling business, and the fact that he always looked like he was legitimately trying to hurt everyone he stepped into the ring with while asking them to throw a punch like they were trying to do the same.
12 Corporal Kirchner
It’s tempting to say that Michael Kirchner is better known by his ring name of Corporal Kirchner, but then again he isn’t really well-known at all. Kirchner joined the military when he was still a teenager after spending his young years getting in a few too many fights. He served as a bouncer for a few years after that but eventually got into wrestling after meeting Hulk Hogan in a gym. Kirschner never really set the wrestling world on fire, but he did light up quite a few opponents with his trademark stiff style that required anyone who stepped into the ring with him to punch back if they wanted to stay on their feet. Eventually, wrestlers became scared to work with Kirchner, and he had to resort to participating in international hardcore matches under the name of Leatherface.
11 Terry Funk
Technically, Terry Funk’s career began well before the ‘80s, but since many of his best matches came during that decade, we’re going to include him. Besides, if we didn’t there is a fair chance Funk might hear about it and invite us to a world of hurt. Funk grew up in a wrestling family, but he didn’t exactly live a privileged life designed to get him ready for an automatic career as a wrestling star. No, Funk spend his young years as a blue-collar Texas teenager who had to fend off many a man who wanted to challenge one of the famous wrestling Funks. Once he was in the ring, Funk’s toughness inspired him to compete in some of the most brutal death matches the world has ever seen as well as some slugfests disguised as scripted bouts.
10 The Barbarian
While Road Warrior Hawk and Road Warrior Animal are rightfully remembered as two of the toughest tag-team specialists who spent most of their careers wearing face paint, Sione “The Barbarian” Vailahi deserves to be included in that very specific group. The fact that The Barbarian didn’t actually get to win many matches throughout his popular WWE run may lead you to think of him as something of a jobber, but Vailahi was secretly one of the toughest men in wrestling. He was sent to Japan at a young age by the king of his country in order to learn the art of sumo wrestling and transitioned to professional wrestling some years later. His new career afforded him plenty of opportunities to beat up on smaller wrestlers as well as intimidate a few well-known tough guys like Haku and Andre the Giant.
9 Angelo Mosca
Angelo Mosca is one of the few people on this list who may be better known for his exploits outside of the ring than he is for his professional wrestling career. Mosca was drafted by the NFL, but elected to play in the CFL following his time at Notre Dame. In the CFL, he became quite famous for his skills and fondness for utilizing cheap shots whenever possible. He’s arguably the most feared CFL player of all-time and one of the most underrated professional wrestling tough guys to boot. Mosca was not a man burdened by fear, nor was he a man who became less tough with age. In fact, Mosca gained a little more fame in 2011 when he beat up former football rival Joe Kapp with a cane. Mosca then auctioned the cane off to charity for $7,700.
8 Akira Hokuto
Akira Hokuto is the only female wrestler on this list, which isn’t really a comment on gender so much as it is commentary on how Hokuto set a bar for toughness that few women - and men for that matter - have ever come close to equaling. Hokuto broke into the Japanese wrestling scene at a time when the major promotions in that country were just starting to really emphasize their women’s division. Hokuto proved she belonged at a young age by striking fear into the hearts of every man and woman in the dojo where she learned the ropes. Hokuto was always tough, but it wasn’t until she finished a two out of three falls match with a literal broken neck that she established herself as a true legend.
7 Stan Hansen
One trademark of professional wrestling in the ‘80s that we wish had never really gone out of style is a reliance on more blue-collar style of wrestlers. While athletic freaks and high-flying daredevils are all well and good, there’s something about a slightly more normal person who looks like they got into their first bar fight at the age of 12 which really just helps sell a match. Stan Hansen is one such wrestler. He was a cowboy who took the label of cowboy very seriously. Hansen had no problem with trading real blows with men like Vader in the ring, nor was he particularly worried about swinging a giant rope around en route to the ring. He knew that push came to punch, he could hit harder than just about anyone.
6 Bruiser Brody
Sometimes, you earn a name like Bruiser because a promoter thinks it looks cool on a marquee. Other times, you get it because if anyone questions if you deserve your nickname you’ll leave them unrecognizably covered in bruises. From a young age, Brody built a reputation for being a loud, crude, and impossibly tough athlete. Eventually, a wrestling promoter took one look at Brody and realized that they could turn him into a monster heel the likes of which wrestling fans had never seen. Brody didn’t really make a name for himself until he went to Japan and scared the hell out of everyone by refusing to lose matches and beating up anyone who disagreed with him. Guys like Ric Flair have said that they were scared to wrestle Brody and believe that he could have beaten up any modern MMA fighter.
5 Blackjack Mulligan
Speaking of wrestlers that Ric Flair thinks are tough, there are few wrestlers who Flair respects more for their toughness than Blackjack Mulligan. Actually, Flair has said that “tough doesn’t begin to describe” Blackjack Mulligan. Mulligan’s life story reads like a trip through the toughness factory. After a stint in the United States Marines, Mulligan began a professional football career. When that didn’t quite go his way, another wrestler convinced Mulligan to get into wrestling. Mulligan quickly adopted a cowboy character that really wasn’t a character so much as it was an extension of his natural personality. Mulligan - the strong silent type - has said that he’s going to take his best stories to the grave, but there are stories about his various boss fights and tendency to set limousines on fire that tell you all you need to know.
4 Dr. Death Steve Williams
The toughness of Dr. Death Steve Williams has been called into question because of his infamous participation in WWE’s “Brawl for All” tournament. As you may recall, the Brawl for All tournament was essentially designed as an elaborate vehicle intended to get Dr. Death over with the crowd. The plan got derailed when Dr. Death got legitimately knocked out. Even still, have you ever thought about just how tough you have to be before WWE decides to host a legitimate fighting tournament centered around you because they are so sure you’re going to win the whole thing? That’s super-villain henchman tough.
Dr. Death was already one of the toughest humans on the planet when he was a standout amateur wrestler and incredible college football player. Pro wrestling just gave him an outlet for violence.
3 Bad News Brown
Bad News Brown is another one of those guys who some wrestling fans have the wrong impression of simply because he never really did much with his time in WWE. Honestly, Bad News Brown's tough identity doesn’t come from his time as a WWE wrestler. It doesn’t even really come from his time as a wrestler at all. Instead, Bad News established himself as one of the baddest dudes on the planet when he was a professional Judo fighter. Actually, Bad News was an Olympic medal winning Judo fighter who is considered to be one of the greatest Judo fighters of all-time by many experts.
Brown has said that the rough and tough world of professional wrestling was actually pretty easy compared to his previous life. That’s coming from a guy who once stared Andre the Giant down and forced the big man to step back.
2 Harley Race
While there are still plenty of tough guys left in the professional wrestling business, it’s not quite like it was in the ‘80s when the nature of the industry demanded that wrestlers everywhere be tougher than most men. Even still, Harley Race stands out from that particular pack as an unusually tough man. Race survived polio as a child and went on to become one of the hardest looking human beings that ever walked the Earth. It wasn’t just a look for Race, however. He was a guy that could shatter your hand just by shaking it. He was the man who gave a standing suplex to Andre the Giant before Hulk Hogan slammed him. Actually, he once pulled a gun on Hulk Hogan over a contract dispute. It’s no coincidence that the few people who have ever tested Race are the ones who will tell you just how tough he is.
The thing about many of the tough guys on this list is that you just have to accept some of the almost superhuman stories about their toughness are true and that some are embellished stories that wrestlers have kept alive over the years. In the case of Meng, even if 75% of the stories involving him are false, he is still the toughest professional wrestler that ever lived, much less an ‘80s star tougher than any wrestler today. The stories involving the fear that Meng inspired in his fellow wrestlers are too numerous to recall in full, but it should be enough that just about everyone on this list has said that Meng is the one person they would never mess with.
Jake Roberts has even said that if he had a gun and was tasked with shooting Meng from 300 yards out, he wouldn’t do it out of fear that he would only wound Meng and incur his wrath.